Why continuing to talk about gender is important…

The 112th International Women’s Day (8th March 2023) was celebrated globally last week to mark women’s achievements in the social, economic, cultural, and political domains and to raise people’s awareness of gender (in)equity. In this blog, Rona Chunhong Zhou, a Doctoral student at the University of Worcester and a member of the Inclusive Sport and Physical Activity Research Group and the UK Chinese Women Connect (UKCWC) charity, explains why we need to continue to talk about gender in our society. Rona’s research focuses on gender, feminism, and women’s participation in sports, exercise, and physical activity. Recently she was invited by UKCWC to give a public lecture on western gender theories from a sociological perspective to help more people understand the deep-rooted causes of gender inequality and the crucial roles gender plays in everyday life. In this academic blog, Rona introduces four western gender theories and explains how gender is closely associated with education, work, and family.

When I began my literature review about a year ago and engaged extensively with both Western and Chinese gender theories, I gained some invaluable insight around reasons for gender inequalities. However, some of the most valuable reflections emerged from discussions with friends, who were also involved in gender research. They asked me three questions: 1) Did your parents have gender bias against you because you were a girl? 2) Is your supervisor female? 3) Why are you interested in doing gender-focused research? When pondering on these questions I realised that I was fortunate that my parents were among the very few who had gender equity values in rural China and, thus, I was not prevented from doing things which traditionally did not align with being a girl. Moreover, I suspect most people may have stereotypes about who carries out gender-focused research and would (wrongly) assume that gender research might be the priority or exclusive domain of female researchers. Men can be and are involved in gender research as they also have a gender. Like many women, there are men who are also concerned about the social manifestation of gender relations. Finally, the journey of doing gender studies has made me a more loving, compassionate, and empathetic human being and I strongly believe that anyone who concerns themselves with gender issues will have the potential to experience the same personal growth as I have.

Let me now turn my attention to gender theories with the question: why gender is crucial in our social life? Men and women are often expected to meet different social expectations regarding their behaviour, work, clothing, family roles, etc. Relations between men and women, in both public and private spheres, are also informed by an understanding of gender appropriate behaviour. Moreover, gender involves the distribution of resources, behavioural and organizational practices, and identity formation at different levels (Ridgeway and Correll, 2004). Thereby, gender plays a critical role in determining the opportunities individuals experience based on their gender. Research and official reports (see United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2017, 2022; United Nations (UN), 2015, 2022; Hochschild, 1989) demonstrate that significant gender gaps exist in a wide range of areas, such as pay, education, and job opportunities. Here I briefly introduce four sociological theories which are commonly applied to explain existing gender gaps.

Sex role theory

Biological arguments (see e.g., Wallin, 1950; Spiegel, 1969) assume that gendered social behaviours and gender roles result from biological sex differences between men and women. Such gender differences are often perceived as natural and unchangeable. Thus, from a biological perspective, women and men are thought to be born with different behavioural characteristics. For instance, women are considered to be the nurturers and carers whereas men are competitive and aggressive. Consequently, when it comes to gender roles in the family, women are assigned various caring roles and men are the providers. Though biological arguments, by and large, have lost their dominance in many Western liberal societies, they retained their popularity in conservative and right-wing populist narratives.

Social learning theory

This strand of theories (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Birke, 1992) takes a different approach to understanding gender and argues that humans are not purely biological but social and cultural beings as well. When we are born, we embark on a journey of learning. Gender-appropriate behaviour is just one of the things we learn as we engage with the culture around us. We do this learning by immersing ourselves in gender socialization through messages from key socialising agencies such as family, school, peers, and the media. Thus, gender is seen as a learned and taught set of behavioural characteristics as opposed to it being solely biologically determined.


Post-structuralist perspectives (see e.g., Connell, 1987, 2000) challenge traditional gender dichotomies and argue that gender inequalities are hegemonically created. They also posit that gender is fluid and both socially and culturally constructed, leading to alternative ways of manifesting masculinity and femininity. However, despite alternative gender practices, there is a dominant gender discourse that aligns with traditional gender perspectives. When someone fails to conform to those dominant ideals and repeated gender performances of masculinity and femininity, they could trouble the gender dichotomy (Butler, 2007).

Materialist feminism

Materialist feminism is an example of feminism joining forces with another theory to explain the complexity of gender inequality. This branch of feminism (see e.g., Dalla and James, 1972; Cox and Federici, 1976) employs some aspects of Marx’s theory to interpret women’s economic and material subordination. They challenged how the institution of family and women’s household work is structured, reinforced, and reproduced by the gendered division of labour in workplaces and institutions beyond the family. They presume that gender had originated from the history of economic development where men were linked with paid work while women with unpaid domestic labour. Women are also considered to be subjected to the dual oppression of capitalism and patriarchy that not only encompasses stereotypes or discernible differences between women and men, but also an underlying hierarchical gender power system which (in many regards) favours men over women (Brod and Kaufman, 1994).

The above introduced social theories offer different perspectives as to how gender is perceived in societies and why gender differences are perpetuated. However, regardless how we may view and explain gender and related sociocultural roles and relations, the fact remains that as a consequence of socially and culturally constructed gender differences, women and men often experience dissimilar opportunities in education, work, and, generally, across life. According to UNESCO (2022), women account for almost 2/3 of the 771 million illiterate adults. Early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, and traditional attitudes towards the status and cultural role of women are amongst the main reasons for women’s dropout from education (if available to them at all). For instance, since Marie Slodowska-Curie in 1903, only 17 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, and medicine, compared to 572 men. Moreover, currently, only 28 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Discrimination, bias, social norms and expectations are found to be responsible for the huge disparities (UNESCO, 2017). The UN’s (2015) Human Development Report exposes many of the gender inequalities and suggests that globally, women’s wages are on average 24 percent less than men’s. In the UK specifically, the gender pay gap among full-time employees rose to 8.3 percent from 7.7 percent in 2021 (Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2022). During the lockdowns caused by the global COVID pandemic, women undertook even more (unpaid) childcare responsibilities while working remotely (UN Women, 2022; UN, 2022).

Gender relations and inequality also play a key role in family life. Gender and power continue to impact family relations from career choices to communication patterns, childcare and housework. For instance, men still have the tendency to hold more power than women in heterosexual relationships and, consequently, may not empathically listen and respond to women’s needs. In such relationships, women may not feel empowered to speak out, ask for what they need (Mahoney and Knudson-martin, 2009) and may assume a subservient position, leading to the maintenance of gender inequalities and power imbalances in family relations. Nevertheless, a cross-national study (see Audette et al., 2018) indicates that the promotion of gender equality can lead to greater subjective well-being for women, boosted life satisfaction for men, and improved life quality for all.

All in all, while there is no short cut to achieving gender equity, I firmly believe that if more people were concerned with gender issues and combating gender inequality, which would ultimately lead to more balanced societies across the spectrum.

Contact Rona:

If you are interested in gender issues and gender equality in women’s participation in sports, exercise, and physical activity and would like to know more about Rona’s work please contact her at: zhoc1_20@uni.worc.ac.uk.

If you would like to support the UK Chinese Women Connect (UKCWC) charity, please visit their official website: https://ukcwc.org/ where you can access more information related to the various offline activities and online webinars held every week.


Bandura, A. (1977) Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Birke, L. (1992) ‘In pursuit of Difference! Science studies of men and women in Kirkup, G. and Keller, L. S. (eds) Inventing women: science, technology, and gender. Cambridge: Open University Press.

Brod, H. and Kaufman, M. (1994) Theorizing masculinities. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Butler, J. (2007) Gender Trouble. Routledge.

Connell, R. W. (1987) Gender and power: Society, the person, and sexual politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Connell, R. W. (2000) The men and the boys. Cambridge: Polity.

Cox, N. and Federici, S. (1976). Counter-planning from the kitchen: wages for housework: a perspective on capital and the left (2nd ed.). New York:New York Wages for Housework.

Dalla, C. M. and James, S. (1972) The power of women and the subversion of the community. Bristol.

ONS. (2022) Gender pay gap in the UK: 2022. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2022. Accessed by 07 March 2023.

Ridgeway, C. L. and Correll, S. J. (2004). ‘Unpacking the gender system: A theoretical perspective on gender beliefs and social relations’, Gender and Society, 18(4), pp. 510-531.

Spiegel, J. (1969) A selected annotated bibliography: sex role concepts. Washington, D.C.: Business and Professional Women’s Foundation.

UNESCO. (2017). Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000260079. Accessed by: 6 March 2023.

UNESCO (2022) What you need to know about how UNESCO advances education and gender equality. available at: https://www.unesco.org/en/gender-equality/education/need-know. Accessed by 6th March 2023.

UN Women (2022) The UN Women Annual Report 2022. Available at: https://www.unwomen.org/en/annual-report/2022. Accessed by 6 March 2023.

UN (2022) Human development report 2021/2011: uncertain times, unsettled lives: shaping our future in a transformative world. Available at: https://hdr.undp.org/content/human-development-report-2021-22. Accessed by: 6 March 2023.

Wallin, P. (1950) ‘Cultural contradictions and sex roles: a repeat study,’ American Sociological Review, 15(2): pp. 288-293.

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